WALLA WALLA -- The Young Ballroom at Whitman College's Reid Campus Center transformed into a virtual carnival Friday afternoon, with games and prizes to delight young guests.
Over two hours, children served by the Whitman Mentor Program got to visit their mentor's school for a change.
In its 18th year, the program is the biggest community service effort at the college, said Mollee Huisinga, one of two mentor interns who coordinate the program.
Started in 1994 as a student's senior thesis, the program has consistently shown children thrive when they create a connection with an older, positive role model. In that first year, student Jamey Wolverton found students had better attendance and higher self-esteem after regular visits with their mentors.
This year, 160 Whitman students are matched with children from Walla Walla Public Schools' six elementary schools and two middle schools. Whitman students who sign up as a mentor commit to one visit per week at their partner's school.
Huisinga said the weekly visits are key, and if mentors are not following through on the commitment, they risk being let go from the program. As a mentor intern, Huisinga worked to put on the carnival and also coordinated with intervention specialists from each school to ensure the right pairings.
The mentor program is not about tutoring, so is not really focused on academics. Rather, it works by offering friendship, a chance to be heard and by being there each week.
"It's having them know there's someone who supports them, someone to talk to and turn to that's stable," sid Kelsey Butts, community service coodinator at Whitman College.
Butts said the program does stress the value of college and education, and said the Mentees to Campus Day is also about getting the young students on a college campus.
The success of the program as a community outreach effort shows in its longevity, and in the number of children who pack the Young Ballroom each year.
Yolanda White, intervention specialist at Edison Elementary, said there are 16 Whitman mentors who visit with Edison students.
"They've been awesome," White said about the mentors. "I have children who truly need this."
Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8317.